Saturday, December 14, 2013

Shock

I went into Shock (1946) expecting the usual "But-I'm-not-crazy" movie in which the main character is wrongfully declared insane and locked up in the nuthouse, and our heroine does in fact demand, "Don't talk to me as if I were crazy! I'm telling the truth!" as many heroines are wont to do in these sorts of stories.  But what surprised me about Shock was how it gave more attention to the villain and his guilty conscience rather than the heroine's efforts to escape and expose the truth. Stories set in insane asylums are often brooding and paranoid, but rare is the insane asylum story in which the doctor is the paranoid or complex figure.

Janet Stewart (Anabel Shaw) excitedly travels to a hotel in San Francisco to reunite after two years with her husband Paul (Frank Latimore), a recently released POW who was previously reported killed. Janet grows anxious when Paul does not arrive as scheduled, suffering a horrible nightmare, and the next morning, when Paul does show up, she's catatonic. Dr. Richard Cross (Vincent Price), a psychiatrist, determines she's in shock and takes her to his country sanitarium for treatment, claiming it's the stress of her husband's return. But Cross knows the truth: she witnessed him murder his wife the night before. When he fails to bury the truth through treatment, Cross and his lover, nurse Elaine Jordan (Lynn Bari), resolve to break Janet's mind and convince everyone else she's delusional.

In a way, Cross is more of the protagonist, or at least the main character, of this piece than Janet. Most of the times, she's kept sedated and confined to bed, only coming out of it to accuse Cross, but Cross, even though he is the villain of the piece, proves to be the most complicated character in the movie. Yes, he's having an affair with Elaine, and yes, he murders his wife, but he demonstrates something very few villains, especially in the film noir genre, have: a guilty conscience. The murder, far from being an elaborate pre-meditated scheme, was a thoughtless, panicked act, and afterwards, Cross says he wished he had called the police then to turn himself in, but now, by hiding the body and waiting so long, it's too late. Insane asylum doctors in this type of story are often cruel, evil psychopaths or sociopaths themselves, blatantly acting in their own twisted self-interest whether it be greed, fame, or psychosis, by Cross's motive, self-preservation, is understandable

In another shift of expectations, Cross also feels guilt for what he puts Janet through. Other villains wouldn't give it a moment's thought, but Cross is torn between committing more crimes to save himself and not allowing himself to become even more tainted than he already is.. The same cannot be said for Elaine. Elaine serves as the Lady Macbeth of Shock, goading Cross and telling him what they have to do get away with it all. In one scene by the fireplace, she subtly plays on his sense of manhood, reminding him what he was like on the night they first were together in a romantic way.

Stylistically, there are some nice touches in Shock. In the beginning, when Janet suffers a nightmare about being unable to be with Paul, the camera pulls a trick similar to what Hitchcock used in Vertigo: the zoom-in/pan-out to elongate the space between Janet and the door she races to. Cross and Elaine are often shown scheming in the shadows, the environment as dark as their intentions, and during the climax, when a plan involves injections of insulin, the needles are show in extreme close ups that dissolve over Janet's battered face, and the effect is unsettling.

As a melodrama, Shock is quite effective. It's very rare to see a story built around the guilt, paranoia, and shame of it's villain, and in a way that almost makes him sympathetic (though that might be because of Price's performance, which is quite good). The thriller elements, as a result, are downplayed to a degree, and the movie's not as suspenseful or as intense as it could have been (the psychiatric elements are probably ludicrously out-of-date as well). However, if you're a Price fan, you'll want to check this out.

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